Essex subside again into batting bedlam
Gloucestershire 77 for 0 (Dent 42*, Tavare 32*) trail Essex 159 (Mickleburgh 42, Norwell 4-32) by 82 runs
Perhaps Essex have spent too much time watching England recently. Serenely placed on 61 for 0, Chelmsford offered no hint of the bedlam that was about to engulf Essex's batting.
Even with Ravi Bopara and Ryan ten Doeschate detained by the IPL, the sense that Essex boast a formidable batting line-up was reinforced by Dan Lawrence making 161 at The Oval this week in just his second first-class game. It only makes their propensity to collapse, most spectacularly when they were routed for 20 by Lancashire here two years ago, all the more inexplicable.
And, on the evidence of the start to the summer, this unfortunate trait remains, particularly at Chelmsford. In their previous home game, Essex suffered a collapse of 51 for 7 against Kent; against Gloucestershire this time it was even worse: 45 for 8. Bafflingly, these games were sandwiched by an utterly imperious performance against Surrey, when Essex declared on 610 for 8.
This time Liam Norwell was the main beneficiary. Persistent morning drizzle had delayed the start until ten to two - and given the wicket a distinctly green tinge, leading Geraint Jones to insert Essex after winning the toss between two former England wicket-keepers.
Normally such conditions are an invitation to bowl full, but Jaik Mickleburgh had driven proficiently through the offside. At the suggestion of David Payne, Gloucestershire located a slightly shorter length. For Norwell, ambling in with his strawberry blond hair, the results were spectacular, as he extracted late movement from a good length.
Three times in eight balls a batsman obligingly nicked him to Chris Dent, who calmly poached Dan Lawrence, James Foster and Jesse Ryder at second slip: a welcome contrast with the swathes of dropped chances that have undermined Gloucestershire's start to 2015. With Mickleburgh already having been clean bowled, Norwell had snared four wickets for two runs in two overs.
Norwell's teammates benefited from similar virtues, pitching the ball up and allowing Essex to implode. The dismissals of Kishen Velani, trying to flick a ball on offstump to midwicket, Graham Napier, lashing his second ball to point after hitting his first there for four and Greg Smith, heaving wildly outside offstump, were particularly regrettable.
To restrict Essex to 159 all out under increasingly sunny skies was quite an effort from Gloucestershire. And even that represented a partial recovery from the wreckage of 106 for 8.
In the circumstances, Essex were most grateful to have a spin bowler with evident batting aptitude. That was not Monty Panesar but Adeel Malik, the younger brother of former Pakistan captain Shoaib Malik. After a brief and undistinguished career in Pakistan - 14 first-class games yielding 486 runs at 21.13 and eight wickets at 43.62 - Malik has impressed in the Essex second team, and was rewarded with his first first-class match since 2010.
Batting with grace and palpable intent, Malik clubbed Payne over long on for a ferocious clean six, and then smeared him down the ground for a four before Payne located a gap between his bat and pad.
Malik has just signed a three-month contract, and his batting ability will make it more difficult for Panesar to return to the side. In an over of legspin before the close, he bowled with enough flight to suggest he might be a genuine wicket-taking threat, twirling his arms in a manner reminiscent of Danish Kaneria.
Not that Gloucestershire will be particularly perturbed. In glorious evening sunset, Will Tavare and Dent completed a sterling day's work. Technically proficient and an assured leaver of the ball, Tavare invites comparisons with his uncle Chris. He provides a neat contrast with his opening partner Chris Dent, a powerful left-hander adept at marmalising anything short.
An emphatic pull off Ryder, judging the length early before crashing the ball to the square leg boundary, was almost contemptuous. Together Tavare and Dent added almost half of Essex's total to leave Gloucestershire envisaging their first win at Chelmsford since 1930.
Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts